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Barriers to Connection in a Remote Workplace

Podcast: Connection and Disconnection in Remote Teams: Discovering the Barriers to Connection

We’ve teamed up with Virtual Not Distant to produce a podcast series looking at disconnection and connection within remote teams. 

In the second episode of our collaboration series: Connection and Disconnection in Remote Teams, I take a look at how disconnection presents itself and some of the barriers we face when trying to connect while working remotely. In case you haven’t already, you can listen to the previous episode here.

Isolation is a common issue among remote workers

Laurel Farrer, remote work advocate and founder of Distribute Consulting, shares that this issue is pervasive with her clients and the remote community at large. 

“In just about every survey and remote work report that you can find out on the internet, isolation is always number one and or number two listed as a primary concern,” Laurel says. 

“It’s also the number one reason that remote workers go back to the office or retract or close their remote work policies.”

Brian Rhea, developer and product strategy expert agrees. He recently started development on a feedback tool to be used in remote teams. He’s named the project Headlamp, and it aims to help employees reflect on how they’re feeling day-to-day. The project was launched after he received overwhelming responses to a tweet talking about loneliness in remote work. 

“The comments in that thread, where it lead me to and the conversations I began to have, not only did it validate that idea, but it [also] felt like, ‘I might be the right person to try and build something to address this,’ Brian says.  

“I don’t want to go back to being anchored to an office. I also want this to not be a regular characteristic of my day to day work life. I like work too much to be lonely in it. I’m trying to figure out, how can software help this? I don’t think that it can solve it, but I do think that it can help.”

Headlamp is particularly interesting as it provides a tool for self-reflection – something that is imperative in understanding and ultimately addressing feelings of isolation in ourselves, and others. Something that is notoriously difficult to pick up on. 

Remote workers may gradually feel disconnected, making it difficult to spot

Tim Burgess, co-founder of Shield GEO, shares his story of disconnection which sums this up well.

“At the time I was 25, I didn’t really think it through, I didn’t realize that what I was experiencing was loneliness, and I lived in a shared house, I had a lot of social activity going on, but those days were really difficult to motivate myself, very easy to get distracted, and it was pretty demoralizing,” he says.

“It’s not like a sudden decision, or that you actually start doing something that immediately leads to you feeling lonely. But maybe you do [something] five days a week, then four days a week, three days a week, and that might happen over a pattern of months, and gradually you start to slide towards being disconnected.”

Working in isolation or solitude is often extremely beneficial in the beginning. It’s definitely one of the appealing factors of going remote in the first place. It allows you to work distraction-free, you can get into that deep work headspace that we’re always chasing, and you can often find yourself being more productive than you usually were in an office environment. 

But this enjoyment of solitude doesn’t always last. Over time, without the ability to connect back in with your team or other humans, the solitude that was at one point a drawcard can slowly turn into something that leaves you feeling quite empty. 

Stigma around loneliness and mental health

The progressive nature of these circumstances isn’t the only thing holding us back from identifying feelings of isolation, disconnection and loneliness. There is still, unfortunately, some stigma around issues related to mental health. This is particularly prevalent in jobs or situations where everyone’s expectation is that you should be having a good time. This can happen in remote work because of stereotypes of remote workers working poolside or carrying their work with them to exotic locations. 

This was the case for Asia Hundley, one of Shield’s customer success team, who moved to Madrid following a positive study abroad stint during university.

“You feel it a lot in different ways, as the time progresses of living abroad,” she says. 

“So, in the beginning, everything’s exciting, so you’re not really focussed on that. And you’re also thinking ‘I don’t know how long I’m going to be here so I pushed it out of my mind because ‘I could be home in a few months or a few years’. Then once you feel like ‘I could grow roots here’ you start to think about the important things like ‘I’m away from my family, I miss my friends, I’m losing contact with a lot of people

In fact, for Asia, she only really started recognizing these feelings of isolation once she read accounts of others in articles shared between Shield’s internal team.

“When I would read those articles, I would start to think about ‘oh! Maybe that is affecting me, and I just haven’t thought about it?'” she says. 

Picking up on other employees’ feelings of disconnection

It’s not only difficult to recognize these feelings within ourselves. Occupational Psychologist Richard MacKinnon says it’s difficult to spot, in others too. 

“Many people will report being lonely, and yet it’s not obvious to the people around them because they seem happy. People will say ‘how can they be lonely? We’re all here! But it’s their evaluation of the situation,” he says. 

Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who has researched this subject extensively, agrees. 

“Just like other kinds of emotional states, we may not always from an outside [perspective] recognize the internal struggles that someone might be having.” 

But just because it’s difficult doesn’t make it impossible.

Behaviours that may indicate loneliness or disconnection

Teresa Douglas, author of Working Remotely, and remote a manager who is currently researching psychological safety in remote teams, shared some behaviours to watch for. 

“If you’re productivity drops, if it’s hard to focus if you’re having the Sunday blues, those things,” she says. “There’s that vicious cycle of I didn’t start work on time therefore I can’t leave, and therefore you’re just completing the cycle.”

She warns against letting these behaviours go on for too long without intervention of some kind. 

“It’s important not to get there if you can avoid it. If you can build up a structure during the good times, the net will be there to catch you if you fall.”

In addition to these indicators, we can also be aware of risk factors that mean a person is more likely to struggle with feelings of isolation and loneliness. 

“Some factors can be demographic, those who live alone are more likely to be lonely, those who are unmarried are also at a greater risk,” Julianne says. 

Of course, just as working remotely doesn’t automatically mean you’ll feel disconnected from your team, these factors are certainly not guarantees of loneliness. They’re simply factors that could increase your risk. 

“Another factor is physical and mental health. Additional factors include mobility and communication impairments, for instances, those with a harder time of getting out into their community are going to have greater risk,” Julianne says. 

There is also some evidence to suggest younger generations experience more loneliness than those who are older.

“In young stages of life, we expect our social lives to be growing, whereas later we expect it to narrow somewhat. Our expectations can have an impact on exaggerating or minimizing these discrepancies,” Julianne says. 

Remote work can often involve risk factors for feelings of isolation

Listening to Julianne share, I’m struck by the thought that in some situations, working remotely could include a number of these risk factors. There are definitely instances of people both working and living alone, being unmarried and living away from support networks like friends and families. The nature of the work means that despite our best efforts there are still some barriers for both communication and in some cases, even for leaving the house. 

With this in mind, we want to encourage any listeners who have felt disconnected while working remotely – we want you to know that you’re not alone. 

This problem is common, but, that doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. We hope that by looking at the specific factors that make remote workers more at risk, we as a community can begin to come up with creative solutions to this problem.

– Bree Caggiati, February 2020

Looking for the next episode? You can listen or read about Episode 3 here!

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